I like my imagined literary nemesis

Ben Mezrich's books infuriate me. He's also a nice guy

Topics: Ben Mezrich, Straight Flush, The Social Network, The Accidental Billionaires, Media, non-fiction, Las vegas, Blackjack, Poker, Internet Culture, Editor's Pick, , ,

I like my imagined literary nemesisBen Mezrich (Credit: AP/Jae C. Hong)

Someone on Salon’s editorial staff can’t stand a certain New York Times reporter. My colleague finds this reporter, among the more recognizable bylines at the Grey Lady, to be a lucky, borderline incompetent. His feelings amount to a potent emotional cocktail of jealousy and contempt.

At a recent editorial meeting, Salon’s staff went around naming our own professional white whales; all journalists have them. I said Ben Mezrich. A few weeks later, in the kind of coincidence that’s always happening in Mezrich’s books, I had the chance to interview him.

Ben Mezrich arrived on the nonfiction scene with his 2002 bestseller “Bringing Down the House,” which tells the story of an MIT card-counting team that won big at blackjack. In the quasi-sequel “Busting Vegas” the players use even more sophisticated techniques with similar results.

Alas, these irresistible underdog tales weren’t true in any conventional sense. A 2008 Boston Globe reporter wrote (subscription required),Mezrich appears to have worked more as a collage artist, drawing some facts from interviews, inventing certain others, and then recombining these into novel scenes that didn’t happen and characters who never lived.”

The challenge of writing nonfiction is to wrest strong material from something as tedious and uncooperative as reality. In “Bringing Down the House,” Mezrich used composite characters and, the Globe found, exaggerated incidents like a robbery and a tense encounter with casino security to make them more compelling.

Pull this kind of stunt in a newspaper or reputable magazine and it’s often a career ender. But book publishers are sometimes more permissive in what qualifies as nonfiction.

Mezrich had previously written fictional thrillers. But after “Bringing Down the House” he found a niche writing true-life and screen-ready tales of brash young men who get rich and indulge their taste for the good life, as 16-year-old boys imagine it. Just like one of his characters, Mezrich had found his edge in the marketplace.

The best known of Mezrich’s subsequent nonfiction works is “The Accidental Billionaires,” a version of Facebook’s creation myth that New York Times critic Janet Maslin called “nonfictionish” and “so obviously dramatized and so clearly unreliable, that there’s no mistaking it for a serious document.” The book is listed as the source material for Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Social Network,” though Sorkin has downplayed Mezrich’s influence.

Mezrich’s latest, “Straight Flush,” finds him in familiar territory. A posse of University of Montana frat brothers find a backroom poker game and then take their hobby global with an online poker business. They raise investment capital, a good deal of it from their parents, and set up in Costa Rica beyond the reach (they hope) of U.S. law.

“Straight Flush” adheres more closely to the standards of traditional nonfiction, than some of Mezrich’s previous outings. Several people who appeared in the book confirmed its basic factuality to me. With more rigorous reporting, this story of an audacious new industry brought low by regulation might have been a cracking business procedural.

For Mezrich it means he doesn’t have to install goons from central casting on every page. There’s still vehicular mayhem and some drug use, but, like in real life, they don’t carry the plot so much as divert it. There are no composite characters, though the author’s note confesses to some reconstructed dialogue.

The quality of that dialogue may help explain why Mezrich isn’t in Hollywood writing the next “Fast and Furious” sequel. Here’s an encounter at a party between two frat boys who are not well acquainted:

“[I’m] Pete Bacevich … I’m from Billings. Basketball, football, wrestling, and tennis. Maybe we played against each other at some point?”

Scott shook his head. “You’re big city. I’m one hundred percent trailer park. The only way you might have met me in high school is if your mom worked for child services.”

Pete then ponders the class divide.

“Dad’s an insurance salesman.” Pete responded. “Mom is a nurse. But I like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start—“

“Only matters where you end up. Better yet—who you end up with.”

Scott grinned, jerking his head toward the brunette who was still crawling up the piano. Then he gave Pete a punch on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry I keep my scars on the inside. Except the ones you can’t really hide, like the cigarette burns and the razor wounds.”

Mezrich doesn’t wade much deeper into character development. But the boys of Sigma Alpha Epsilon are Faulknerian prisms compared to the female characters in “Straight Flush.” Frequently nameless and mute, the women’s “dime-size nipples jutting out” have more personality than their owners.

The author also owes an apology to the nation of Costa Rica. By most accounts, the Central American country is an economic development success story. Mezrich portrays it as a jungle inhabited by prostitutes and dodgy cab drivers. “Costa Rica,” he writes, “was hot, dirty, lawless, and heavy on insects.“

Mezrich was in New York this week plugging “Straight Flush.” We spoke on the wraparound balcony of his suite in Midtown. At a time of mass journalism layoffs, his hotel room itself made a compelling case for bending the rules. “You should see where I stay in Vegas,” he grinned.

Mezrich’s work commits crimes great and small against my profession. But I’m not under the illusion that many people care. In person, Mezrich is hard to dislike. He’s charming, fast-talking and self-justifying when necessary. Few people can be expected to agree when you imply their livelihood is a fraud.

This transcript has been edited for length and readability. I’m sure he’ll understand.

How would you describe your brand?

I write narrative nonfiction — true stories, usually about young people, who live in that gray area between right and wrong and do something wild and incredible. Narrative nonfiction thrillers I guess would be the way to put it. They always have elements of exotic locales and money and crazy schemes.

How did that get started?

I used to write fiction and then I met the MIT kids. I started hanging out with them at a local bar. They always had tons of money, and it was always hundred-dollar bills, so I started going to Vegas with them and I decided to write their story; I convinced them to let me. I kind of fell into nonfiction. It was never my goal and I was never a journalist or anything like that. I just continued to write nonfiction as if I was writing thrillers.

Did you look for more young people to write about?

It’s more like everyone just came to me. I became the go-to guy for every college kid who did something stupid or crazy. People would just pitch me stuff and so I kind of fell from that into story after story until the Facebook story came. It’s never really me hunting down a story. It’s not like I read the New York Times and I see something I want to write about, because at that point every journalist is already diving in. It’s got to be something that’s pitched to me. I want it to be a story nobody else has really told yet.

“Straight Flush” could have been in Fortune or Wired.

Yeah, it certainly could have been. I was turned on to it — I got emails from a couple of the founders separately who didn’t know they were both emailing me over the years. Other people had always said you should write about online poker, but I was never interested, and then I read the story that the guy would email me. It was such a blend of “21” [the movie based on “Bringing Down the House”] and “The Social Network” that it was kind of perfect for me. It really is over-the-top, I love it.

Do you identify with these types of characters?

I’m neurotic and terrified of everything, so I’d never be the guy in Costa Rica driving the BMW a hundred miles an hour. I am attracted to these kinds of stories, though. I’m kind of blown away by these over-the-top characters who do something wild and crazy. So yeah, I would definitely say there’s something about my main characters that I find very appealing.

In “Straight Flush,” you have these guys who sound like any frat boys. What about them put them on the track …

It could have been any frat guy that plays poker in an underground bar. Part of it was this period around 2000 where everyone was trying to launch Internet companies and they were poker players who decided to try. It could have been anyone [but] I think their drive was very intense.

Do you think online poker will be coming back?

Yeah, it will be absolutely legal in the United States. I think within the next decade, most of the states in this country will have online poker and eventually there will be some federal passage. It’ll be regulated, structured, taxed, you’ll have to be a certain age, but it will come back. These guys were kind of the first people to do it and they paid the price for being first.

It’ll be a lot more corporatized; there won’t be a chance for guys like this.

Absolutely, it’s like Prohibition. These guys were running it during Prohibition and once it’s legal it’ll be big, it’ll be Wynn, it’ll be MGM, it’ll be big companies.

You’re probably in your 40s.

I am 44.

You’re known for writing about people much younger than you.

I’m aging out of my characters.

Do you have any interest in …

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You know what’s funny, is each time I wrote one of these books, I get into the story and live like these guys, but I’m definitely now old enough to almost be their dad. I think I stay young through the stories I write, but who knows what’s next? As people pitch me things, I always look at it and I’m still fascinated by the stories of fairly young people, so I don’t think my stories have aged yet, but we’ll see what happens in the next decade.

In the past you’ve taken flack for stretching aspects of nonfiction. This book adhered more …

Yeah. Janet Maslin liked it in spite of herself. She didn’t hate it as much as the previous ones. I know that my form of nonfiction is controversial and there are some journalists who simply don’t like what I do. I’m very open about it. I research the story, get all the information, I interview all the characters and then I write it as a thriller, so there’s some repeated dialogue and there are some scenes written very dramatically, but all the facts are there. [For] this one, I spent a lot of time with these guys, I’ve got photos of all the guys. They were all involved in terms of interviewing and telling the story. I feel that it’s a very true story.

I felt that way with all my books. I think I get attacked more for my style than what actual facts are in the book. It’s very rare that a review says that this fact is not true or that this book is just fiction. Nobody ever reviews the facts in my books because the facts are there. Most of them are from court documents. There’s tens of thousands of court documents about all the books I write in which you could look for the facts and they’re all there. But my style is controversial — narrative nonfiction, the way I write it, some people like it and some people don’t.

This one rang more true to me — it didn’t have compound characters.

Right, this one didn’t have compound characters. Everyone’s real name is in it. Part of it was the access I had, part of it was that these people were all willing to talk and they were all willing to appear in the book. So it wasn’t the kind of thing where people were asking to be kept out of the book or kept secret. There were six guys who I was talking to. The amount of information I had was dramatically more than a lot of the stories I’ve written.

Has your thinking on how you write books changed? Would you go back to composite characters?

If I had to — if to tell the story it was necessary. If there were characters that — I want to be hidden, I don’t want to know who I am, I don’t want people identifying me — I need to protect them. I feel like as a journalist that’s part of your job: to not screw people. If I’m writing a book about someone and he’s like, “You know what, if you identify me in this book it’s going to fuck up my life, don’t identify me,” then what do you do? You can either cut him out of the book or you can create a composite character that tells the story as it happened, but doesn’t give you any details about who that person is. I think that’s fine.

Obviously I’d rather not do it. I’d much rather write a book where every person is in it and every piece is documented and I have recordings of every dialogue—that would be awesome, but that just doesn’t happen. This book, I was very fortunate to get to everybody.

It’s tricky. With each book, it’s different. Obviously I’d rather avoid composite characters if possible, I’d rather have all the dialogue be exactly what they said, but you get what you can.

There are writers of nonfiction who would never use composite characters …

There are absolutely a handful. It’s a different form of book. I would never write the Abraham Lincoln biography that goes on 800 pages that way. Although, of course, there’s a lot in that book that has to be made up, well, not made up, but people aren’t there, they don’t know what anyone really looked like.

For me, this is the form that works, this is what I like to read, this is what I like to write. I don’t think I’d ever sit down and write a long-form article for the New York Times or something like that — it’s just not what I’d normally write. But in terms of what I do, I feel it works for me and my readers and so I like it. I don’t foresee changing my style any, and I don’t think this book is any different in style; I just think in this case it’s easier to research the specifics of it.

I grew up in a different journalistic school. What do you say to reporters who are starting out, or reporters who lose sleep over their facts?

I think they should. I think it depends on what you’re writing. I think if you’re writing a story about a fire that you just witnessed for the New York Times, you just report the facts and that’s your job, but I think if your job is to describe that fire in a thriller about a fireman who goes there and risks his life to save someone, you’ve got to put drama in it and you’ve got to try and see it from his point of view. You’ve got to try and get into his head. I think there are two different forms of journalism at play there, so if you were writing a book about a fireman who puts out a fire, that’s going to be a very different story than covering that fire for the New York Times, but they’re both journalism.

Is anyone going to say that Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t journalism? No, of course not. If you come out of journalism school and you want to be Hunter S. Thompson, then you can write like Hunter S. Thompson. And Hunter S. Thompson wrote gonzo — you know as well as I do what he did — and no one would say he wasn’t a journalist, right? It’s just a different form of journalism. There’s nothing wrong with it, you have to be true to what you feel you want to write. If you want to tell stories that are true, there are a variety of ways to do it. I don’t think there’s just one way to do it and I feel there are some journalists who feel there’s just one way to do it and I think they’re wrong.

Who are some of the other writers you admire?

Michael Crichton I thought was a phenomenon. I grew up on Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and that sort of writing and now I read everything: “Game of Thrones,” Sebastian Junger I’ve always loved, always [been] fascinated by his writing; I think he’s a genius. He’s much less terrified of the world than I am. I mean, he’s the guy who would go into a foxhole and get shot at — I would never do that, but he’s a phenomenon.

Sebastian Junger had some tough words for you [in the above mentioned Boston Globe piece].

No. I think that article was a hit piece and that article was so flawed and directed. That guy would call up people and lie to them to get them to say negative things about me so then he would pull their quotes out of context. I’m friends with Sebastian Junger and I’ve been friends with him for years and he has no issue with my writing at all and we’ve done events together and have no problems.

Can I confirm that?

Sure, Sebastian and I have done multiple events together. I think he’s great. I think that guy called up people, like characters from my books, and did his best to get them to say the books weren’t true, then those same characters would call me up and say, “That’s not what I said.” I mean, what are you going to go by? I don’t know. The whole quest to take down a nonfiction writer seems to be like this game that a lot of interviewers like to play because it gets them play. The goal of an article like that is to play to get hits and so that’s what the article was. I think it would be very unlikely, to me anyway, that Sebastian would have any problem with the way I write. Obviously I don’t write the same types of books he writes.

If you call up Sebastian Junger today and say, “Sebastian, do you think it’s OK to make up composite characters?” He would of course say, “no.” And then they’re going to quote him and write, Ben Mezrich makes up composite characters — that’s what that was. But “The Perfect Storm,” I gave the example in that article. “The Perfect Storm” was a book about a bunch of people on a boat that died. Everybody on that boat died. There are many scenes in that book that take place on that boat — how is that different from the scenes that I write? So I think that Sebastian Junger is a phenomenal journalist who sometimes also writes narrative nonfiction similar to what I do. [Junger’s publicist said he was on assignment and unreachable via email.]

You mentioned [New York Times critic] Janet Maslin …

Deep down I think she loves me. She loves me in spite of herself. Her latest review of me — it was not as negative as she wants to be toward me. I think she had a line where she called it “the perfect narrative non-fiction thriller” [Ed: In fact, “A near-perfect specimen of pulp nonfiction”]. I mean, her reviews are always delightful for me to read. She goes after me with such relish that I see her enjoying going after me.

I like them, it’s fun, I always look forward to that review — which I always know she’s going to do. It’s been very entertaining. This time I felt it was a good review.

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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